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Struggling With High Turnover? Upgrade Your Leadership Skills to Stop the Exodus

I always encourage CEOs to go back and email employees who quit to set up a coffee meeting to dive into why they left.

The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is currently running a high turnover rate — 21.4% for the construction sector alone. Executives of design and construction companies usually blame salary as the culprit. When leaders talk with their former employees off the record, though, they typically learn that their departures had nothing to do with money and everything to do with leadership.

Construction jobs pay well, with wages that are about $7,000 higher than the average for all jobs in the U.S. But when an employee sits down for an exit interview, the easiest and least confrontational reason for leaving is pay. They don’t want to say, “I’m bored with my job” or “I don’t enjoy working with the people around me.” Worse than that, they don’t want to talk about a lack of leadership or direction.

The Second Degree of Leadership

Good leaders follow the 4 Degrees of Leadership. The second degree is about effectively leading direct reports one-on-one. This includes helping your employees uncover their purpose, make progress on their personal vision, develop within their job responsibilities, and have a clear idea of what the team needs to achieve.

The second degree of leadership is where the rubber meets the road. Without it, you won’t keep employees around for long.

For example, imagine there is a $200 million hospital project. It will be the tallest building in the area, and its design is a unique departure from the traditional red brick of the surrounding buildings. More than that, everyone has been excited about how it’s going to help children and their families.

The project starts with several companies joining together and creating a project team. After about 10 months of work, right as crews are pouring the concrete and putting up the iron, contractors and subcontractors begin to have conflicts with one another. Suddenly, the companies are more focused on turf wars, budget, and time constraints than the original purpose of the project — helping children and families.

A bad leader would fight over pennies and minutes. Employees would then get frustrated with the in-fighting and stop caring about the purpose, eventually becoming disenchanted with the company altogether.

On the other hand, a good leader would say, “How is this going to affect the doctors, the staff, the families, and the children? What decisions will be in their best interest, and how can we develop a solution as a team that will continue to support the greater purpose of this project?”

Great project leaders realize that every decision increases or detracts from the long-term life OF and IN a building. From that perspective, great leaders work to develop solutions that fulfill a greater purpose. They root all decisions in the bigger vision, ensuring that every solution serves the client. In that type of inspiring, unified culture, employees will be motivated to stay, contribute, and work toward a greater good.

To create a culture of strong leadership that inspires employees to stay, here are three things you can do:

1. Keep the perspective alive. Whether you know it or not, your work provides an experience for your clients. At a restaurant, the last thing diners want is for a server to tap his foot impatiently while they’re trying to finish a meal. AEC employees shouldn’t do the same thing with a project.

A project might be on time and under budget, but the owners probably won’t want to do repeat business with a contractor who is difficult to work with and rushing to get out of there. If you create a harmonious relationship, being behind schedule or budget won’t matter. Keep your teams focused on the ultimate need the project fulfills rather than just finishing projects so they can move onto something else. It will make a tremendous difference in the culture and motivation of your employees.

2. Identify and smooth over distractions. Help your team identify and remove distractions. If you have team members who are struggling with time management, for example, your job is to help them figure out what’s getting in the way. It might be technical issues, confusion about how to juggle concerns from other projects, or issues with subcontractors. Maybe an employee needs flex time because he or she has been feeling overwhelmed with twin toddlers at home. Whatever the cause, identifying distractions and helping employees find solutions is an essential element of great leadership.

3. Address the ‘bad fits.’ As a leader, it’s your job to identify who in your company will work toward the purpose [insert link to “managing misfit” article once live]. You’ll have to make hard calls to cut out or trade people who won’t ever get on board, but it’s vital that every single person at your company is working toward a shared purpose.

Another vital part of your job is understanding how well team members are working together — even when they don’t seem to value each other. Get to know your employees to figure out how they fit within the team. For example, a hard-driving personality might be necessary for the growth of your team; meanwhile, more detail-oriented employees might have a hard time collaborating.

Hiring and retaining employees, especially in a business where the turnover rate is so high, is an incredible challenge. But it doesn’t help to assume everything comes back to money. Look within your business and evaluate your leaders, and you might discover that it’s time for a change.

If you need help evaluating the leadership of your business, use the P10 Evaluation benchmark to get started.